New York Retention Battle

K-12 Testing

A controversial grade 3 retention program imposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has generated intense political and legal criticism. In response, City officials have launched a legal assault on parents who have organized against Bloomberg’s policy. In the face of decades of research clearly proving that holding students back does not work, the New York City case demonstrates that retention policies are essentially political, not educational initiatives.


In March, just three months before the end of school, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to hold back grade 3 students who did not score “two” or higher on a four-point scale on either the city reading or math tests. The Mayor needed approval from the Panel on Education Policy, a mostly toothless state-mandated replacement for the city’s Board of Education. Parents and educators worked hard to educate members of the panel. When it became clear the panel would reject Bloomberg’s plan, the mayor removed three members and replaced them with two city employees and a bridal shop consultant who proceeded to vote in favor of his retention policy.


Advocates then exposed why the test should not be used to determine retention. The all-multiple-choice reading test is made by Harcourt Educational Measurement, drawing on items from its norm-referenced tests. Harcourt’s test manuals warn that those tests should not be used for high-stakes purposes, consistent with the measurement profession’s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. The reading test technical manual explained that the error range of the test was three points in either direction on a 45-question test, meaning many errors were likely to be made. In addition, the manual states that 11 questions “favor” whites while zero favor African-Americans or Latinos.


The policy’s opponents also charged that the mayor had a hidden agenda: making his recent state-approved takeover of the schools look good. Retaining low-scoring children in grade 3 will lead to a boost in next year’s grade 4 state test results, just in time for Bloomberg’s re-election campaign.


On April 21, the day after students took the reading test, Time Out From Testing, the parent-educator testing reform group leading the struggles, held a news conference. City Councilor Marguerite Lopez handed out copies of the reading test to the media. Time Out explained that 12 of the 45 items on the 2004 exam were repeats from the previous year. The city has never managed to effectively collect used test booklets, so many of last year’s copies were still in the schools.


The city and the test’s publisher warned the media not to make the items public. While Cable TV Channel One repeatedly broadcast specific items, other media only reported the story.


Facing an uproar over whether students had been prepped for this year’s test with last year’s questions, Mayor Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein decided that some 1,200 students in Queens – alone among all New York City students – would have to take the test again. In response, the City Council filed a lawsuit against the mayor, on behalf of the Queens students but more generally against citywide use of the tests for retention.


The re-test administered to the Queens students contained a serious printing error. The answer options to test items were labeled E, F, G and H, but the bubble-in answer sheet used the labels A, B, C and D. Teachers were forced to tell the students that E = A, etc. Time Out From Testing has accumulated evidence indicating this confused many students. Mayor Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein then offered to let students take the test a third time.


Despite opposition from parent organizations, most educators, the teachers union, and the City Council, which voted in June to oppose the policy, Mayor Bloomberg persisted. Klein continued to defend the tests in the media, arguing that they were reliable and valid for high-stakes decisions, despite evidence and expert opinion to the contrary. However, the city did decide to exclude limited English proficient and special needs students from the test requirement. More than 11,000 students did not pass the test and were directed to attend summer school.


The retention policy provides an automatic appeal for all who do not pass. Scores were returned to the schools on June 11, and principals had until June 16 to provide the data necessary for the appeal, including a portfolio of student work. Since the Mayor had waited until March to announce the policy, teachers were not prepared. Keeping portfolios is not common in most city schools. Still, in late June the city announced that some 1,500 appeals were granted, leaving 9,000 to attend summer school. Only after summer school – in late August, right before school starts again – can parents appeal retention decisions.


Appeal decisions are rendered by supervisors, one quarter of whom are being replaced at the end of this school year, meaning that unprepared people will often be determining grade placement. While a booklet explaining what needs to be in the appeal folder has been distributed to schools, it is not known whether the supervisors have a clear set of guidelines for making decisions. In Chicago, the appeals process for a similar test-based retention policy varied greatly across the city until a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights forced Chicago to set up a more consistent process (see Examiner, Spring 1999). Not surprisingly, the politically connected and those most able to publicize their situations usually won their appeals.


Meanwhile, since it was predicted up to 16,000 students might fail, questions are surfacing as to whether the cut-off score was lowered. Education officials have thus far refused to release the cut-off score. City councilors promise to press the administration on this question.


Attacking Parents

Time Out parent activist Jane Hirschmann has received a threatening letter from Harcourt lawyers directing her to remove the testing manual from Time Our From Testing's website and to return the tests. The math test is made by CTB-McGraw Hill, whose lawyers have also called Hirschmann, though that test’s content has not been made public. The New York Civil Liberties Union has intervened on her behalf, citing fair use doctrine.


Hirschmann also faces the Special Commission of Investigation for the New York City School District, which wants to know where she got the test. She has explained it was left in an ummarked manila envelope with her doorman. Her address is widely known as it is posted on her website and is used for collecting petitions against both the grade 3 tests and the Regents exams (see Examiner, Fall 2003). The copies were made and distributed by Councilor Lopez, who thus far is not being investigated.


“This is an attack on the parents’ organization,” Hirschmann explained. But the parents are continuing to fight the policy.